Beware the terrorist autopsy

We’re so focused on the individual that we miss the bigger picture of the new threat Emwazi represents.

British newspapers front-page headlines and stories on the identification of the masked ISIL fighter dubbed 'Jihadi John' [AFP]

Despite his likely location being in the margins of Upper Mesopotamia, it would appear that Mohammed Emwazi, also known as “Jihadi John”, is everywhere. His face is plastered across newspapers and the internet while television shows debate what “triggered” his radicalisation.

A Google search reveals 5.4 million hits for him, articles have trawled through his life with pictures of him at school (where apparently he was bullied and called “little Mo”), audio transcripts of his thoughts on global events such as 9/11 and even debates as to whether or not to give him “the publicity they crave”.

This form of analysis – a type of “living autopsy” – demystifies the fear that people saw in the faceless killer that Emwazi was previously. However the danger is that we become so focused on the individual and his story that we miss the bigger picture of what kind of new threat Emwazi represents.

We become obsessed with the man and not the method.

Media outlets identify ‘Jihadi John’

Emwazi is symptomatic of the globalisation of political violence and there needs to be a better framing and means of analysing this new type of threat.

‘Generation U’

The author Robin Wright in her analysis of the Arab Spring, described the phenomenon of “Generation U” – young Muslims under age 30 who were unfulfilled, unincluded, underemployed or underutilised, and underestimated. These are a tech savvy demographic (interestingly engineers and scientists account for over 55 percent of Islamic extremists) who explore new spaces to conduct their politics. These spaces are bespoke and largely uncontrolled – hence the surprise when individuals in the West affiliate themselves with groups like ISIL.

Oliver Roy’s magisterial text “Globalised Islam” described the deterritorialisation of Islam and how “there is a stress on the self, a quest for personal realisation and an individual reconstruction of attitudes towards religion. Faith is more important than dogma”. The rise of the individual is encapsulated in Emwazi, now described as the “world’s most wanted man” solely on the basis of a horrific series of murders. What other murderer can elicit responses from the most powerful global leaders on the planet and is able to capture the global media in such an effective and low cost manner?

When individuals wield such an inordinate amount of influence the question should be less why but more how? American Professor Phillip Bobbit sees the fight against ISIL as a test of a new world order: “A new international order whose stability is being tested in its youth.” Intelligence agencies and the state system that rely on rules, respect to sovereignty and territory, are bypassed by those who reject their legitimacy to the point of declaring the existence of their own state.

The military campaign has identified an enemy and a battlespace and is bombing away - but the far harder question remains what to do about the threat within and what to do about those would be ISIL fighters who've yet to travel and whose involvement is solely in the virtual environment.


‘Mentality revolutions’

Moises Naim in his book “The End of Power” wrote about the “mobility and mentality revolutions” empowering the “disruptors” to traditional networks of power and changing expectations and standards. In 1990, 0.2 percent of the world had a mobile phone – by 2012 that figure was at 87 percent and rising. Naim wrote how technology helped put “individuals in an unprecedented position” to “bypass political institutions developed over decades”.

Shiraz Maher, of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London describes Syria as “the most socially mediated conflict in history” where you can have direct contact with a fighter to discuss logistics of getting to Syria as well as the emotional rationalisation such as the personalised ISIL communications on “attractive Jihadists” campaign to lure young European women to the country.

It is a lot easier for states to revert to traditional methods against such a threat. Currently there is a coalition of more than 60 countries supporting the government of Iraq against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant with a smaller number engaged on the Syrian side of the border.

The military campaign has identified an enemy and a battlespace and is bombing away – but the far harder question remains what to do about the threat within and what to do about those would be ISIL fighters who’ve yet to travel and whose involvement is solely in the virtual environment.

The British Security services had a “close eye” on Emwazi but he still managed to move from a non-criminal to a criminal sphere. The cost of preventative measures to secure against individuals’ radicalisation could be astronomical in terms of monitoring and interdiction. Remember that al-Qaeda spent about $500,000 to produce 9/11 and US losses and response costs were $3.3 trillion.

The challenge for governments is to adapt to the globalised nature of this threat to be more proactive not reactive. Last December, Major General Michael K Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitted that when it comes to ISIL “we have not defeated the idea… We do not even understand the idea”.

Until you understand the ways and means of an idea then “Jihadi John” may be just the tip of an iceberg in this new type of conflict. 

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.